Mention fried green tomatoes to a Northerner, and thoughts leap to Fannie Flagg's best-selling novel about a colorful Alabama town in the throes of the Great Depression. Mention fried green tomatoes to a Southerner, however, and lip-smacking accompanied by soft, affectionate moans are the probable response.

If you've never tasted this homey Southern favorite, do yourself an easy favor. Slice unripe green tomatoes about 1/4 - to 1/2 -inch thick, sprinkle with salt and pepper, then coat with cornmeal. Pan fry until browned on both sides. (Traditional recipes fry in bacon drippings, but vegetable oil is an acceptable choice.) Eat them warm, all by themselves, or make a quick sauce made by stirring lemon juice, paprika and chopped parsley into mayonnaise.

Throughout the South, green unripe tomatoes have a following all their own. They're used in jams, preserves, mincemeat, pickles and the relish known as chow-chow. They also make appearances abroad. In Indian cuisine, they're stewed with mustard seed, cumin and other spices to produce a lively vegetarian entree.

Knowing what to do with unripe tomatoes is a boon to gardeners rushing to rescue late-season fruit from oncoming frost. Don't confuse them with tomatillos, which look like small green tomatoes but are distinguished by their papery husks, and bear in mind that some heirloom tomatoes are green at maturity. Green tomatoes should be firm to the touch, and fairly bright in color.

Tart green tomatoes contrast with the creamy cheese in this somewhat quiche-like dish. Serve as an appetizer with crackers or as a light entree with a salad.

> Green Tomato-Spinach Cheesecake

Cooking spray

6 to 8 green tomatoes

1 (10-ounce) package frozen spinach, thawed and drained

2 eggs

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups low-fat cottage cheese

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

6 ounces plain goat cheese, chilled

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a shallow, 9-inch straight-sided baking dish or springform pan with cooking spray.

Set aside 1 large or 2 small green tomatoes for garnish. Dice remaining tomatoes, keeping all juices. Combine diced tomatoes and spinach.

Combine eggs, flour, cottage cheese and salt, beating well by hand. Combine with tomato mixture and stir well. Add Parmigiano Reggiano and stir again. Crumble goat cheese over mixture (you want distinct little bits of goat cheese). Stir a few times and turn into prepared pan. Sliced reserved green tomatoes thinly and press onto top of cheesecake.

Bake, uncovered, 35 to 40 minutes or until firm and slightly crusty on top. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature. Serves 8.

(Recipe by Crescent Dragonwagon.)

Per serving: 240 calories, 7g fat, 18g prot., 19g carbs., 3g fiber, 520mg sodium.

Look for Relish magazine the first Thursday of each month in The Buffalo News.